Pocono II: Tony Stewart race report

STEWART STEALS NINTH STRAIGHT TOP-10 Old Spice/Office Depot Driver Rallies from 43rd to Finish 10th in Backup Chevy at Pocono Tony Stewart and the No. 14 Old Spice/Office Depot team of Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) view Monday's rain-postponed...

STEWART STEALS NINTH STRAIGHT TOP-10
Old Spice/Office Depot Driver Rallies from 43rd to Finish 10th in Backup Chevy at Pocono

Tony Stewart and the No. 14 Old Spice/Office Depot team of Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) view Monday's rain-postponed Sunoco Red Cross Pennsylvania 500 as the kind of race that championships are built upon. It wasn't a win, but the 10th-place finish at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway marked an impressive achievement on a number of fronts.

* It was the team's series-leading 17th top-10 finish of the 2009 season and their ninth straight top-10.

* It extended Stewart's lead in the championship standings to 197 points over second-place Jimmie Johnson.

* It was done with a backup racecar, for the team's primary No. 14 Old Spice/Office Depot "Swagger" Chevrolet Impala SS was damaged beyond repair in the opening moments of Saturday's first practice session. And because the team used a backup, they had to start last in the 43-car field per the NASCAR rulebook.

* The backup racecar proved to be an ill-handling machine that was only made bearable thanks to unwavering patience, smart chassis adjustments and savvy pit strategy.

"We were just really, really loose at the beginning," said Stewart, who now has 16 top-10s in 22 career Sprint Cup starts at Pocono. "It wasn't going to be a little adjustment that got us caught up. It was going to take big steps. We finally just made a huge, huge change and we got it closer but we never got it right. Once we got it tightened up, we were too tight and then we couldn't get it freed up enough, but it was at least drivable. We made the best of a bad situation that I put us in on Saturday morning."

When qualifying was rained-out on Friday, Stewart was awarded the pole as the field was set by car owner points. Unfortunately, Stewart's prime starting spot was slapped away the very next day when just a few minutes into practice his No. 14 Old Spice/Office Depot "Swagger" Chevrolet slapped the turn three wall.

While Stewart walked away unhurt, the damage to the car was substantial. The team quickly pulled out the backup racecar and prepped it in time to continue practice. But once a backup racecar is used after qualifying, NASCAR rules state that you're forced to start at the rear of the field.

The scenario was eerily similar to what played out in June when the Sprint Cup Series first visited Pocono. There, qualifying was rained-out and Stewart was awarded the pole. Come Saturday, a spin off turn two damaged the car's nose, forcing the team to use its backup for the race. But in the race, Stewart picked off a car a lap after starting 43rd and went on to lead the final 37 laps around the 2.5-mile triangle to take his first win as a driver/owner and the 34th of his Sprint Cup career.

While this weekend's script appeared to be following the same one from June, it became apparent 10 laps into the Sunoco Red Cross Pennsylvania 500 that a different ending was being penned.

Stewart made forward progress, picking up 11 positions in the first three laps. But the tell-tale signs of a long day quickly emerged.

"I'm free... everywhere," Stewart radioed to crew chief Darian Grubb.

Then on lap 10, Stewart felt that he had a right-rear tire going down. Grubb immediately called Stewart to the pits for a four-tire change. No flat was found, and Stewart was mired in 41st position.

As the race went on, Grubb made a series of adjustments to aid the handling of the No. 14 Chevrolet. Air pressure, wedge, track bar -- there was no adjustment that was off-limits.

Progress was made, but it came slowly. Finally, at the halfway point of the 200-lap race, Stewart and Co. caught a break.

Running in 28th, Grubb kept Stewart out on the racetrack as long as possible when a series of green flag pit stops began on lap 92. Stewart climbed to second as those ahead of him pitted for fuel and tires, but once those cars came back onto the track, they quickly ran Stewart down, as their new rubber was no match for Stewart's worn tires.

After dropping to seventh, Stewart finally pitted, and then quickly earned a reprieve. Just as the team finished its pit stop, the yellow caution flag waved. With four fresh tires and a full tank of fuel, Stewart returned to the track while those who had pitted ahead of him had to come back to pit road to get new tires and top off with fuel.

Suddenly, Stewart was in the top-10, and restarted the race in seventh when the green flag dropped on lap 101. He bounced in and out of the top-10 as his car continued to prove fitful, but it was still better than running in the mid-30s near the back of the field.

It was a much-needed boost, and when a series of restarts from lap 141 to lap 160 dropped Stewart to 20th, it was okay, as those caution periods allowed Grubb to tinker ever more with the car's handling.

A smart fuel-only pit call by Grubb on lap 166 vaulted Stewart back into the top-10, as the Old Spice/Office Depot ride was able to restart sixth when the race went green on lap 170.

While Stewart dropped back -- as his car still wasn't perfect -- he never dropped out of the top-10. The constant adjustments Grubb made to the No. 14 Chevrolet allowed Stewart to steal a top-10, as he held off a charging Matt Kenseth to claim 10th when the checkered flag dropped.

"We never give up," Stewart said. "Darian never gets wound up and it keeps me from getting wound up. He just helps you through it. It's easy to get down, but he is just calm and keeps you pumped up. You realize you've got a long day but that you'll get it better as the day goes."

Ryan Newman, driver of the No. 39 Haas Automation/U.S. Army Chevrolet Impala SS for SHR, finished 14th to notch his 12th top-15 effort of the season. He dropped two spots to fall to ninth in the standings, 561 points out of first and 165 points ahead of 13th-place Kyle Busch -- the first driver on the outside of the 12-driver Chase for the Championship.

Denny Hamlin beat Juan Pablo Montoya by .869 of a second to win the Sunoco Red Cross Pennsylvania 500. It was his fifth career Sprint Cup victory, his first of the season and his third at Pocono.

Finishing third was Clint Bowyer, while Sam Hornish Jr., and Kasey Kahne rounded out the top-five. Brian Vickers, Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon, Kurt Busch and Stewart comprised the remainder of the top-10.

There were 10 caution periods for 39 laps, with eight drivers failing to finish the 500-mile race.

The next event on the Sprint Cup schedule is the Aug. 9 Heluva Good! at The Glen road course race at Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International.

-credit: shr

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Series NASCAR Sprint Cup
Drivers Juan Pablo Montoya